The best of films: Charles Dickens, the cinema, and the trials of adaptation

Charles Dickens The Life and Adventures of Nicholas NicklebyCould the film of a live performance be the definitive screen version of a Charles Dickens novel?

I asked myself this recently after contemplating The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, a masterful, 8-hour-long play adapted from the titular Dickens novel, which I saw on Broadway more than 30 years ago and now periodically rewatch on DVD (the film of the production hails from 1982). There’s an awkwardness to this “movie” that speaks to its theatrical origins, yet when I think of Dickens onscreen, I think of this rather than David Lean’s spellbinding Great Expectations (1946) or nearly as brilliant Oliver Twist (1948), two of the greatest adaptations of the novelist’s works. And the oddest thing about this may be that I don’t even consider Nickleby to be Dickens’ greatest work; it’s an early piece that has a more meandering quality than some of his tighter books and it’s less moving to me than, say, Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities.

So why do I find myself drawn to a less-than-cinematic filmed version of a stage production over more vaunted movies in the canon?

I have to admit: I’m biased. I originally watched the play in its entirety over the course of one day, thereby getting the full impact of this magnificent comedy-drama. But I also feel that the quality of the filmed production transcends its stage-bound limitations. The casting is impeccable, from Roger Rees as the namesake protagonist to David Threlfall as the doomed, abused boy Smike to Alun Armstrong as the evil schoolmaster Wackford Squeers. In fact, there’s hardly a more villainous character in a Dickens adaptation onscreen, with the exception of Robert Newton’s irredeemable Bill Sykes in Lean’s Twist, a performance that’s one of the hallmarks of the picture. So I have no fault with the casting here.

Charles Dickens The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

Alun Armstrong as Wackford Squeers

I do have, however, issues with the cinematography in Nickleby, which is more geared toward an interpretation of how the play would appear on television than cinematic; for instance, in some close-ups, viewers can’t see the rest of the action, leading, perhaps, to questions surrounding the reactions of other characters. Plus, the production was a spare one, with furniture, sets, lighting, et al., minimised to ensure quick delivery and removal during scene changes. So in the filmed version of the play, viewers may balk at the landscape’s minimalist quality when compared to versions made especially for the movies. And finally, there was the tendency of the actors to walk among the audience, especially in the opening scenes, during which bakers showcase their wares. Unfortunately, you can’t enjoy the same effect on celluloid. I still enjoy it immensely, however, and find these quibbles minor.

I think one of the biggest issues with Dickens is that his novels are so damned hard to translate well to the screen. Numerous other attempts have been failures, ranging from Alberto Cavalcanti’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947) to Christine Edzard’s Little Dorrit (1988) to Alfonso Cuarón’s reimagined Great Expectations (1998). Not least is the problem of condensing the voluminous content into an accessible whole, which I feel only Lean’s versions do. With this challenge, filmmakers are bound to lose context, and in a Dickens novel, that can be disastrous, considering the intricate relationships of the characters. Another dilemma is whether to change the material to suit contemporary audiences, which was a fault of the Cuarón Great Expectations (the only quibble I have with the Lean iteration is the major change to the ending, but since it’s still handled well, I can’t bemoan it too much).

charles dickens the life and adventures of nicholas nickelby

Alun Armstrong as Wackford Squeers, and Roger Rees as Nicholas Nickleby

I think the biggest dilemma, however, is in the text itself. A superb writer, Dickens was able to meld hilarious comedy and tremendous drama into his sentences, belying his novels’ serialisation quality and making every word necessary … despite the fact that he was basically getting paid for each one. It’s hard to provide that kind of need in the cinema in general, and in a Dickens adaptation, doubly so. A director may augment a film with narration, but I believe this technique can often be overused – though surprisingly, it works in Lean’s Great Expectations, as well as in the filmed production of Nicholas Nickleby, where various characters often clarify the proceedings by speaking to the audience.

Perhaps that’s one reason why the stage version plays so admirably, though it’s certainly not the only one. I can also cite a gorgeous score by Stephen Oliver, whose “Patriotic Song” providing an entr’acte mid-performance is one of the most stirring melodies ever written for the theatre. And the editing is certainly competent, allowing for succinct scene cutoffs and changes where needed. Indeed, it’s a whole lot more pleasing than the pacing in the 1947 film version, which felt clipped (yes, it was abbreviated, but still!) and unsatisfying despite the presence of quality actors such as Cedric Hardwicke and Sally Ann Howes.

So what am I to make of my question about Nicholas Nickleby? Perhaps I’ve been beguiled by the memory of a great theatrical performance, but I don’t think it’s just that. A remembrance of things past can only do so much toward enjoying aspects of the present, and as there’s still much to like in the film of the live production, I guess I can label it my favourite Dickens adaptation. Given its rarity nowadays, as well as the prevalence of the Lean versions, I suspect I’m in the minority on this preference – though I’ll take a page out of Smike’s book when admitting how I feel about it: Frankly, “I am quite contented.”


Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse ( that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

5 thoughts on “The best of films: Charles Dickens, the cinema, and the trials of adaptation

  1. Pingback: Getting Vocal About Voiceovers: The Problem With Movie Narration - CURNBLOG

  2. Hi Simon. I can give you an English perspective on this production. In 1982, a new TV Channel was granted a licence in the UK. It was called Channel 4, and declared it was going to be different to the other channels. It commissioned films (and still does) and also made many original drama series (and still does). One of the opening programmes was this eight hour version of Nickelby, which ran as a four-part mini-series. Starring some of Britain’s best stage and character actors, it was not only marvellous in execution, but also landmark television.

    Threlfall’s Smike is heartbreaking, and I personally believe this to be the best Dickens ever filmed, with due respect to Mr Lean. It gives enough time to completely immerse the viewer in the story, and let’s not forget many books by Dickens were originally published in serialised form.
    You have made my day, with this review of one of my favourite pieces of television ever shown.
    Regards as always, Pete.

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